The Tabwa

The Tabwa (Taabwa, also called Rungu) people live in small autonomous villages scattered within a territory that expanded from the southeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the northeast of Zambia, along Lake Tanganyika.  The verb "tabwa" means "to be tied up" and refers to when these people were taken as slaves. During the 19th century, the ivory trade brought wealth to the region and Tabwa people gained their independence. This was the era of Dr. David Livingston’s historic explorations of central Africa and the eastern-most areas of the Congo in his search for the origins of the Nile river.

Today, the Tabwa number 200,000 and are led by chiefs-sorcerers who rule over village chiefs and family chiefs. Their power is counterbalanced by male societies and by female associations. Traditionally, Tabwa people made their living from hunting and blacksmithing; nowadays they cultivate millet, manioc, cassava, beans, and corn, but they live primarily off fishing and hunting, for game is plentiful.

The influence of Eastern Tanzanian neighbors on Tabwa art is seen in their use of linear geometric decorations, while their western neighbors, the Luba, influenced the incorporation of prestige objects into Tabwa life. The Tabwa worshipped ancestors, whose statues were the property of the lineage chiefs and sorcerers; these carried “medications” in their ears or in small cavities at the top of their heads. The Tabwa also worshipped the spirits of nature, who lived in trees and rocks.

The installation of a supreme chief is of relatively recent vintage; formerly it was the function of the large ancestor figures to consolidate the power of the chiefs.  Older ethnographic maps represent the Tabwa as separate tribes. the unity felt in modern times is a product of colonial politics. 


Types of Art: Tabwa carvers produce many beautiful utilitarian objects such as combs, drums, and bellows, but also produce sculpted figures representing ancestors and twin figures. The Tabwa are known for these statuettes, which play a strong role in their society. Some statuettes were used for divination. The Tabwa also made twin figures that could be both dangerous and bearers of good luck. In the north of Tabwa country, the diviner was also a sculptor; consulted after a dream, he would create a new statue. 

Special attention was paid to scarifications on Tabwa statuettes, which embellish the body and recall social values. On the whole surface of the body, a recurrent motif consists of twinned isosceles triangles, the two bases of which symbolize the duality of life. They evoke the coming of the new moon, essential to Tabwa philosophy, whose return would be celebrated monthly.

Tabwa Edged Weapon:  Ceremonial Knife